“Then you should be trying to please me now,” Victor replied, flashing his teeth in a grin as he moved his body against hers. He was handsome, Anna thought, amid the heat and the lights and the pounding rhythm of the dance music. She could see why her sister had had a crush on him since girlhood. Too bad he had such an ugly soul.
Aware that she was playing with fire, Anna wanted to run from him, far away from this dance floor.
But where would she go?
Besides, though he might have hurt business rivals in the past, he would never hurt her, she tried to reassure herself. She’d known Victor since she was eighteen years old, when he’d gone into business with her father and had personally asked Anna to become his secretary. True, she’d spent five years fending him off, but now she had no other choice but to ask for his help. If she didn’t want to be completely at Nikos’s mercy she needed a favor from the only man who could fight him and win.
“Call me Vitya, like you used to.”
That was Natalie’s nickname for him, not hers. “Victor, please, if we could only—”
A hand suddenly gripped her wrist, pulling her away.
“Get away from her, Sinistyn,” Nikos said.
“Stavrakis.” Narrowing his eyes, Victor wrapped his arm around Anna’s waist, pulling her back so hard he almost yanked her off her feet. “You’ve got some nerve to come into my club and start throwing orders. Get out before I throw you out.”
“You? You’ll throw me out? Or do you mean one of your goons will do it for you?” Nikos drawled lazily, in a tone that belied the threat in his posture. “We both know you wouldn’t have the guts to do it yourself.”
Victor smiled at him, showing sharp teeth. He looked over the dance floor. Anna noticed his bodyguards hovering close by. Apparently, this gave Victor courage. “I don’t see Cooper with you tonight. It was a mistake to leave your guard dogs at home, you Greek—”
Anna physically came between them, pushing them apart. She felt sick. She’d thought Nikos would wait for his bodyguards, giving her at least thirty minutes to privately conclude her business with Victor. Having him come so quickly, and alone, had shot her plan apart.
“Please, let me go,” she said to Victor. “I need to talk to Nikos anyway. I—I’ll talk to you more later.”
For a moment Victor looked as if he were going to pummel the smirk off Nikos’s face anyway. Then he shrugged and said shortly, “As you wish, loobemaya. Go. Until later.”
He walked off the dance floor. Nikos looked as if he meant to deliver some rejoinder, but Anna grabbed his hands, forced his attention back to her. “What are you doing here?”
Nikos’s anger came back to focus on her. “The question, madam, is what are you doing here? Dancing with him? Dressed like that?”
“I can dress as I please—”
He interrupted her. “You will never see Victor Sinistyn again, do you understand?”
“No, I don’t. You’re not my husband. You’re nothing—”
With a growl, he dragged her off the floor, through the crowds and out of the club. She struggled, unable to escape his iron grip.
Outside, the cooling desert air felt fresh against her overheated skin. She took several deep breaths, trying to calm her fears as he retrieved his motorcycle from the valet.
This was going to work. It had to work. She’d use the threat of Victor to force Nikos to give her joint custody of her son. And set her free.
Tossing a tip to the valet, Nikos threw a muscular leg over the motorcycle’s seat. For a moment Anna’s gaze lingered on his body, on the way his snug black T-shirt accentuated the muscles of his chest and his flat belly, on the tight curve of his backside in the dark designer jeans.
“Get on,” he ordered, his eyes like ice.
Carefully, Anna climbed up behind him on the motorcycle. She gave a little squeak as he revved the engine and roared down the street without a word of warning.
She held him close, her body pressed against his back. Her tight suede halter top thrust her breasts upward, and they felt exquisitely sensitive, the nipples hardening as they brushed against the muscles of his back. She tightened her grip on his waist, her dark hair flying in the wind.
“You’ll never go to that club again,” he said in a low voice, barely audible over the roar of the engine.
“I’ll do as I please.”
“Promise me right now, or I swear to God I’ll turn around and burn the place to the ground.”
She felt his body tense beneath her grip as he waited. His deliciously hard body felt so good beneath her hands. It was enough to make her lose all rational thought.
Perhaps she could give in to this one request, she thought. She didn’t want to go back to the stupid club again, anyway. She had no intention of letting Victor paw at her more on the dance floor.
Next time she’d meet him somewhere else. Like a library.
“All right,” she said. “I promise.”
She felt his body relax slightly. “Good.”
A few moments later he pulled the motorcycle beneath the brilliant marquee of L’Hermitage Casino Resort.
Like the Parisian and Venetian hotels down the street, L’Hermitage’s architecture was an imposing fantasy.
Much of the design had been based upon the stately nineteenth-century palaces of St. Petersburg, but the centerpiece of the building was a reproduction of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, with its distinctive onion-shaped domes.
Tossing his keys to the valet, he took her by the hand—more gently this time—and led her through the front door for her first inside look at the finished project that had consumed them both for nearly four years.
She gazed upward at the high ceiling as he led her through the main floor of the casino. The architecture had triangular shaped Russian arches over doors, watched over by painted angels. Soaring above the slot machines and roulette tables, a simulated horizon held the breathless hush of a starlit sky on a cold winter night.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.
He smiled at her then, an open, boyish smile, and it nearly took her breath away. “Wait until you see the rest.”
On the other side of the main casino floor they entered the Moskva Shopping Complex, which was built like several outdoor streets within the casino. The storefronts and streetlights, the ambient light and even the sounds of birds far overhead, made Anna feel as if she was walking through a fairytale Russian city.
“It’s just like I dreamed.” She looked at the expensive shops, Gucci and Prada and Tiffany, and her fingers tightened around his. “You made our dream a reality.”
He stared at her, then slowly shook his head. “We did it together, Anna. I couldn’t have created L’Hermitage without you.”
She blinked as tears filled her eyes. He appreciated all the work she’d done, the heart she’d poured into her work.
He looked her full in the face. “I’ve missed you.”
Anna felt her heart stop right in the middle of the ebb and flow of the busy street. The chic people hurrying into the stores seemed to blur around her. Could it be true? Just by seeing her with Victor, could Nikos have realized he missed her? Needed her?
Her heart gave a strange thump. Words trembled on her lips. Horrible words she couldn’t possibly say, because they couldn’t possibly be true. Could they?
“You…you’ve missed me?”
“Of course,” he replied. “No other secretary has ever been your equal.”
“Oh.” The thump moved from her heart to her throat. She turned to face the large building behind her.
“Matryoshka,” she murmured, over the miserable lump in her throat. She stared up at the restaurant’s imposing domes of unpainted wood, like a miniature cathedral tucked inside the fairytale street. She had to change the subject before he realized what she’d been thinking. Before she despised herself more for being foolish enough to think he actually cared for her.
“Wait until you see the inside,” he said, taking her hand. “You’ll think you’re inside the Terem Palace.”
A slender, well-dressed maître d’ stood at a podium just inside the restaurant.
“We’d like the table by the window,” Nikos said.
The maître d’ didn’t bother looking up from his reservation page. “That particular table is booked for four months,” he said, sounding bored. “And we have nothing available for tonight—not a thing—not even if you were the King of—”
Mid-sneer, the man glanced up. He saw Nikos, and his jaw went slack. He suddenly began to cough.
“One moment, sir,” he said breathlessly. “We’ll get your table ready, for you and for your lovely lady, straight away.”
Two minutes later the maître d’, now fawning and polite, had left them at the best table in the restaurant. A little awed in spite of herself, Anna looked around.